As of yesterday Nioh will have been out for two weeks. We've played, we've cried and we've been both entertained and frustrated as we've figured out how to move forward. The following is our full review in which I have both mulled over on my own as well as with the thoughts of both Robert and my brother Marc. We have all gone through our own sets of trials and kept tabs on each other pretty much since we started.
Nioh, like other releases this year, has been a long time in coming from its original announcement over a decade ago. Having gone through multiple revisions we finally saw a near final form through an Alpha Demo designed to take in players feedback for the final version. It was brutal. It was hard. It was amazing short of the durability system that had been put in place. With a handful of modifications it could be amazing.
Few months pass from this point and Team Ninja and Tecmo Koei release a Beta Demo. Gone was the durability system in place of what was called a familiarity system. Now instead of weapon degradation in which your weapons lost attack power over time you had your weapons gain the attack power instead. Not every weapon could be taken the same distance on a one to a hundred scale so you could do some choosing before you picked what you wanted to run around with. The only issue with this system is that you could simply swap your weapons at will because of how fast the familiarity rose. It's a Beta stage, there would still be time to fix it.
A few more months pass and a Last Chance Demo would be announced not long before release. This would show off the final form of Nioh while also giving players one last chance to reap the rewards of the first two demos. The Mark of the Conqueror and the Mark of the Strong would be bonus DLC for anyone that managed to complete the demos within the allocated time. Putting a bit more pressure on, the Last Chance would be available for no more than a single weekend while the other two had been available for nearly a week each. How was the Last Chance in regards to the other two? If they could keep up what they had designed things would be golden.
This brings us to now. We've all sunk some ridiculous hours into it. Most of the worries that I originally had in regards of how they were going to string the mission based levels and story together have disappeared. The combat system is just as solid as it was in the Alpha. The stages have some frustrating designs which makes you have to think about it at times. Overall the formula was there but when it was all put together there was something just "not quite right". It wasn't until I had finished a few stages that I realized, the final version is easier than the demos for feedback. The level of difficulty seems to have been somewhat reduced until certain other issues arise in which at some points? Nioh needs some balancing patches.
The three of us have all had these. There were times in which doing the exact same thing twice in a row would yield different results. This could be getting one shotted by a monster that could barely even dent you two seconds prior to being quite out of reach and getting hit regardless. Because these didn't always happen however it was hard to anticipate them but at the end of the day if you died? Well you learnt your lesson and simply found another way through it all.
From the top, Nioh is a great game. It has some issues when it comes to balancing and frame rates at times but nothing that outright marrs the experience. Unless you consider the inventory management in which case we'll touch on that later. I loved the nod to the Souls series with William sitting inside of a jail cell that happens to be sitting inside of the Tower of London. This is where it all starts. This is also where it starts to spiral downwards for our Englishman as he's in for a hell of a ride between battling humans, demons, and a crazy sorcerer which is his entire reason for sailing to Japan.
The mission based structure that Nioh decided to follow along is a lot more interesting than it originally looked like. Core missions are very long and then there are some smaller ones that are designed just as way points and a way in order to accumulate more Amrita and level up in between. Instead of just following this however the larger core stages have sub missions that follow along afterwards partitioning portions of these stages for another reason. Something else is down there and must be taken care of. Someone dropped something and needs it back or they will have to take their own life as is the code of the Samurai. It gives more substance than simply going in and doing what you need to do before heading out. It's not backtracking as much as it's revisiting but sometimes the reasons are ridiculous. Other times? Even if they are ridiculous the rewards for doing so far outweigh the little bit of time that they can take.
Combat is both interesting and fun as there's something for everyone and there are plenty of different avenues in which how to approach a situation. Swords, dual-swords, spears, axes, and the Kusarigama make up the core melee before adding on either Ninjutsu or Omnyo abilities. Going fully into one, mixing and matching, anything is up for grabs alongside light, medium and heavy armors for defense. Even these can all be mixed and match in order to find something that suits your style. It can take some time in order to figure it all out but that's the point of testing it out because what you may have wanted originally (full heavy swordsman) may not be as much fun as what you end up with (mid armoured swordsman with Onmyo magics).
Regardless of the loadout, the final version stuck with the Alpha's original concept of High, Medium, Low, and Unarmed stances. High stances are slow but put a lot of power behind each swing. Low stances are very fast but put more into how many times you can hit an opponent over how much damage you are performing. Medium stances find a balance between the two but unlike the Alpha, the Beta, and the Final Chance it didn't seem like these stances were as important as they once were. Instead their final versions they seemed to be more for flavour in a lot of cases instead of being used for tactical advantages against your opponents.
Even if the first three felt more like flavouring as I rarely moved from my mid-stance, the unarmed stance was something else at times. This stance is designed to attack with a whole lot of power through a charge up attack. If it could hit then great! But it was all about timing and I generally left it out of my repertoire because why worry about timing a charge attack properly when you could simply shoot the enemy first?
Bows, Rifles, and Cannons make up the three main physical ranged attacks. Ninja stars and kunai can be used as well as magic spells but these work their way into your combat loadouts. Bows are quiet, have the most ammo, and are the first ranged type to be picked up. What makes the bows interesting is that there are normal arrows as well as blessed ones making these extremely useful against the undead.
Rifles by contrast aren't quite as quiet but can pack a lot more of a punch than their counterpart. They come in two flavours of standard lead ball and an incendiary round. The last of these is the loudest and the proudest of the three requiring William to take a knee in order to set it up but holy hell does the cannon do damage. The amount of setup time is worth it especially for larger enemies or "Walls that have eyes" in which once you hit them too many times they come after you. Normal weapons don't do much to them but taking out the cannon will have you through in no time.
One thing that I either never noticed in the Demos or was more of a brand new thing and just easier to pull off was the ability to simply crack through an opponent's barrier in nothing more than a single hit. This is more for the Oni than a human or Revenant but I really noticed when I threw a stone to get an Oni's attention and it dropped to the ground. Stunned at the turn of events I forgot to rush over and stab it while it was down. What did I learn? I learnt rather quickly that while headshots were a viable form of mowing down human opponents, each Oni type has a weakness that allowed for an easier time at taking them out. The standard run of the mill Oni with their swords, axes or dual blades for example are very weak to getting hit in the horns. An arrow or even a stone can do this leaving them open to even more damage. Furthermore certain stances make these maneuvers just as easy as the up or a down stroke of the sword will go right through those horns dropping them onto the ground.
There are some enemies in which it's either much harder to hit their weak spot or they are simply too tough making it more of a situation for your Living Weapons. Living Weapons are what I essentially referred to as a Musou Attack as that's what it really felt like it was. By filling up a gauge, your guardian spirit can imbue your weapon with its element while simultaneously increasing your attack power and saving you from any hit that would have otherwise hit depleted your health. These can be used in any situation as long as your guardian spirit is with you.
When you fall in battle the first time, your guardian spirit will remain where you fell in order to protect the Amrita that was collected. Because of this, Living Weapons and any magic that uses your spirit cannot be used in the meantime. This makes sense as they are not there. If you fall a second time however then both sets of Amrita are lost for the same reason because they are not there. If losing out on Amrita is not an issue then the spirits can be summoned back from any Kodama Shrine that you come across.
Kodama Shrines are like your checkpoints. "Operated" by these tiny cute green spirits, the shrines are where William and head back to in any stage in order to Level himself up with Amrita, change his Guardian Spirit, summon a visitor, or simply restock on healing items from storage. Finding any of these during a stage is a blessing as it means that there is a safe place to rest or potentially come back to if things get too rough. As for blessings these too can be set as long as you've found enough Kodama to unlock them. The higher the Kodama count the stronger the blessing but just remember that these do not carry between the various islands. I only noticed this two islands later when I wasn't getting what I should have out of the Health Blessing designed to drop more Healing Elixirs. Oops.
All of these elements together make for a good system. Each type of equipment comes in four types of rarity going from White -> Yellow -> Blue -> Purple with the Purple generally being the strongest as it can have the most amount of bonuses to it. I say generally as I've gotten purple items with less than some of the white equipment that I picked up. If for whatever reason you pick up a new shiny piece of equipment and it's almost what you want but there's one skill on it that you don't like? Take it to the blacksmith's. In the Demos I thought that this would probably wind up being a useless feature as why would I want to give her my weapons when I could simply donate them to a Kodama Shrine and get bonuses? Now? Now I've given over most of my items in order to break them down into components to either craft new equipment or swap out skills that don't suit my needs.
The Blacksmith's is an excellent addition to Nioh. She sells you ammo. She can swap out useless skills for better ones for a price. She can make brand new equipment pieces as long as you can hand over the components for it. She can even transform the look of a piece of equipment into another as long as you've seen it before making it that you can look like a super heavy armored samurai when in reality you are wearing a very light ninja suit.
Finally, and perhaps the most important aspect of the Blacksmith, she can raise the level of an item by sacrificing a higher level item as long as you have the money for it. This means that an amazing lower level sword that you've been hanging onto can re-become useful later on as it becomes that much more powerful. This can be very expensive but in certain cases, like my brother's, he's saving up eight million in order to soul match his favorite axe because that axe is a work of art and he's found nothing close in that time that even comes close to it.
Alongside your Blacksmith is the Dojo that teaches the basics of things. If you've played before then you can skip the beginner classes however you're going to want to go back for the advanced classes. The reason for this is that it opens up nodes on William's Skill Tree. Without these classes then certain branches will remain closed. Because there is always a catch, the advanced classes for Melee, Ninjitsu, and Onmyo require that a certain amount of points have been put into William's respective stats for those trees. They are worth it and honestly if you are worried about losing out on a potential build? Don't. William can re specialize himself by the use of a book that resets both his Stat and Skill points. These can be bought for an increasing cost from the Blacksmith or for an Honour cost from the Tea House.
The Tea House is an interesting addition. It comes in rather late to the game but offers a new spin on the overall experience. Once the man that runs the Tea House has been freed he offers you the choice of which faction that you would wish to align yourself with. If you've played any of the Samurai Warriors or are simply familiar with Japanese History the names of the houses and factions will be instantly familiar. These houses offer unique bonuses to William and also compete for who can obtain the most Honour in an actual calendar month. What's Honour you ask? Perhaps one of the best systems that Nioh has to offer.
Honour can be obtained by fighting the Revenants that have been around since the Alpha. These spirits can be summoned into your realm by simply standing over them and summoning them. Once in your realm however it's sink or swim because they are out for your blood. These blood thirsty spirits come from the souls of other players that have died and have the same equipment and skill loadouts that they were equipped with at the time of their deaths. Fighting and defeating this ghosts will give you both Honour and at least one random piece of their gear. This is a great way to at times get better equipment or at least get components in order to make newer pieces through the Blacksmith.
Compared to it's original state it feels like there's something missing from the Revenants. ORiginally the AI seemed to be based off of a player's actions more than a predetermined routine that was based off of the primary weapon set. Yes some of them will use some of these abilities but short of going up against a Sword user? There's no way that some of these Revenants with their levels and gears would play a certain manner with an Axe or a Spear. There's no way. If it was based off of their actual gameplay there's no way they would have made it that far and sadly it seems like it was pre-determined attack patterns instead of the glimpse of another player's style.
With all of the pieces in place, one area that could have used a lot of work on was the inventory management. You can sort through certain fields but overall? It felt like a bit of a mess as there were no options to double sort for example of Rarity -> Armor Types or Weapon Types. Instead it was simply by Rarity or by Weapon Level. Even locking a piece of equipment into place did not bring it to the top or bottom but instead was wherever it fell into the list. This made swaping through armour sets at times a pain because you had to either scroll through the entire list or head over to a Kodama Shine in order to donate all your gear and forget about the Blacksmith's components for a few moments. It could get very annoying and I'll be honest that I personally may have even gotten rid of some epic leveled items because they were cluttering my inventory and I just wanted to quickly switch up gear in order to try another approach at a mid-boss or the boss of the stage themselves.
While designed as a single player experience, you don't technically have to go at Nioh alone. There is a catch though. Until you've beaten a stage once you cannot simply queue up with a random stranger or a friend in order to dive head first into coop slaying. If you need help you can summon a partner however this partner needs to have already completed the stage themselves. This means that my brother and I that had thought of going at the experience as a duo was short lived as we could only simultaneously play as long as we had both beaten a stage which brings up one thing, the multiplayer itself? Was very smooth.
Even if we couldn't tackle stages together, we did go back and that form of gameplay was different in a good way. Instead of everything else that had been set up, simultaneous multiplayer sessions worked in their own fashion. The created party is given a gauge which is reduced every time that a player falls in battle. Kodama Shines restore this gauge only once. If all the players involved die at the same time then the stage is considered failed and that's the end of it even if there is still space left on the gauge. It's fun, it's smooth, but unfortunately you can't do it on your first run though. You have to prove that you can do it instead which works for coming back and finding missing Kodama or grinding for Honour and Gear but it would have been nice to explore side by side with someone from the get go.
Nioh is an amazing game. Yes it has some issues but most of them can be solved in time with some balancing patches. Was it worth the wait? Yes. Was it worth going through all of the Demos to give feedback for the Final Form? Very. William's adventure through Japan is an amazing one and I'm glad that I got to share it with friends as well as going at it alone.
PS: Thanks for the input boys!
Article by Pierre-Yves,
Sony PlayStation 4
Tecmo Koei America
Article by Pierre-Yves,
with Robert and Marc L